Antiquarianism in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern

Antiquarianism is usually associated with the beginnings of archaeological research from the 16th century onwards (Schnapp 1996: chapter 2). It refers to a pre-scientific approach of studying the past in which the emphasis is on detailed recordings of the material evidence, as well as on ordering it in typologies, implying relative chronologies, and in spatial groups, implying shared ethnic identities of their makers. This approach has been influenced by cultural-evolutionary ideas as well as by an interest in ethnic belonging and the national past of a people such as the Germans and the Slavs. Key concepts of antiquarianism include the notion of historical progress and the ethnic interpretation of material culture (cf. Trigger 1989: chapter 2).

Often, antiquarians considered their work as the main purpose of their lives, and they were hence prepared to invest much of their own time and money in archaeological research: the distant past was part of their personal identities. It can be argued that a more and more sophisticated versions of an essentially antiquarian and culture-historical approach dominated all of archaeology until at least the beginning of the 20th century (see Eggers 1986).

In the history of archaeology in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, culture-historical antiquarianism has been the dominant approach since the 19th century and is still very much alive (cf. Steinmann 1995). Among its most prominent representatives were Friedrich von Hagenow (1797–1865), Friedrich Lisch (1801–1883), Rudolf Baier (1818–1907), Robert Beltz (1854–1942), Ernst Sprockhoff (1892–1967), and Ewald Schuldt (1914–1987) (for short biographical notes see Berlekamp 1961; Reifferscheid 1935; Gummel 1908; Götze 1934). They were interested first and foremost in the material evidence itself, which was valued as a source of historical information and therefore recorded, documented, and published in great detail, as well as preserved wherever possible. Their analyses of the material evidence was usually empiricist and limited to typologies, which were then interpreted in time as relative chronologies and in space as settlement areas of ethnically distinct groups.
Megalith in Neubrandenburg (908) in 1877 (from Sprockhoff 1967: 50)
Of greater historical significance among the earlier antiquarians was the work of Friedrich Lisch, who was the curator of Grand Duke Friedrich Franz I's extensive collection of antiquities. Lisch was one of the first to develop the Three-Period-System of subsequent ages of stone, bronze and iron, possibly preceding his Danish contemporary colleague Christian Jürgensen Thomsen, to whom the credit is normally given (Beltz 1919: 18-20; Reifferscheid 1935: 269f.; Eggers 1986: 46–52). According to his successor Robert Beltz, Lisch can also be called the founder of German Antiquity Studies (Altertumswissenschaft) and the first who associated pottery types correctly with the right prehistoric periods during which they originated (Beltz 1921: 207; see also Nilius 1971: 9). Friedrich Lisch stated about his aims (1837: 22; original emphasis):

"Das Hauptziel aller Untersuchungen bleibt die Beantwortung der Frage, welchem Volke diese Gräber angehört haben. ... Zu den wichtigsten Arbeiten zur genauern Kenntnis der Vorzeit der deutschen Ostseeländer gehört nun vor allen Dingen, dass man die Gräber nach ihrer Form und ihrem Bau in Classen ordnet und dabei darzustellen versucht, welche Arten von Alterthümern sich in den verschiedenen Classen der Gräber finden."

"The main aim of all investigations remains answering the question of which people these graves belonged to. ... Among the most important tasks for improving our understanding of the prehistory of the German regions along the Baltic Sea is most definitely classifying the graves according to their form and construction and attempting to show which kinds of antiquities are found in the various classes of graves." (my translation)

Friedrich von Hagenow published in 1829 the first topographically exact map of Rügen which also contained all known prehistoric sites as well as the locations of historically important events (Berlekamp 1961: 10). His map has now become invaluable in order to determine the scale of destroyed ancient monuments over the last century and a half. Hagenow's written account (Baier 1904) also included drawings of several megaliths e.g. one in Schwinge (827), Kreis Demmin (see image).

Robert Beltz published in 1899 the first catalogue of megaliths in Mecklenburg, which remained unchallenged until the work of Ewald Schuldt. Beltz was also the author of the first published complete catalogue of a collection of antiquities in Germany (1910; cf. Beltz 1921: 208).

The antiquarian, culture-historical tradition started by these eminent individuals was later continued by Ernst Sprockhoff (1938; 1967) and Ewald Schuldt (1972), whose research aims and results were not all that different from many of their predecessors in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. A similar, although in some ways much more sophisticated, approach can also be found in more recent works (e.g. Beier 1991).

The studies resulting from a great antiquarian tradition (e.g. Baier 1904; Lisch 1837; Beltz 1910; Sprockhoff 1967; Schuldt 1972) have become standard works for the archaeology of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and they are still frequently used. It is obvious that my own work too has greatly benefitted from the careful documentation and publication of the material evidence by scholars working in the antiquarian and culture-historical tradition. My research would simply not have been possible without them. I believe that the best way of honouring the people who did all this work is by using it creatively for new research. It is now time to move beyond antiquarianism, however sophisticated, and ask questions as well as suggest answers which are perhaps more interesting than what seemed appropriate until very recently: this is what I have tried to do in this study.


Baier, Rudolf (1904) Vorgeschichtliche Gräber auf Rügen und in Neuvorpommern. Aufzeichnungen Friedrich von Hagenows aus dessen hinterlassenen Papieren. Greifswald: Julius Abel.

Beier, Hans-Jürgen (1991) Die megalithischen, submegalithischen, pseudomegalithischen Bauten sowie die Menhire zwischen Ostsee und Thüringer Wald. Wilkau-Haßlau: Beier & Beran.

Beltz, Robert (1899) Die steinzeitlichen Fundstellen in Mecklenburg. Mecklenburgische Jahrbücher 64, 78-192.

Beltz, Robert (1910) Die vorgeschichtlichen Alterthümer im Großherzogtum Mecklenburg–Schwerin. Berlin: Reimer.

Beltz, Robert (1921) Literatur zur mecklenburgischen Vorgeschichte 1900–1920. Mannus 13, 206-214.

Beltz, Robert (1919) Zur Geschichte der heimischen Vorgeschichtsforschung. Mecklenburg 14, 14-20.

Berlekamp, Hansdieter (1961) Aus der Arbeit Friedrich von Hagenows. Greifswald-Stralsunder Jahrbuch 1, 9-18.

Eggers, Hans Jürgen (1986) Einführung in die Vorgeschichte [1959]. Third edition. München: Piper.

Götze, Alfred (1934) Robert Beltz 80 Jahre. Mannus 26, 2-6.

Gummel, H. (1908) Lebensbild des Stadtbibliothekars Dr. Rudolf Baier in Stralsund. Baltische Studien 12, 1-10.

Lisch, G.C.Friedrich (1837) Friderico-Francisceum oder Grossherzogliche Alterthümersammlung aus der altgermanischen und slavischen Zeit Mecklenburgs zu Ludwigslust. Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel.

Nilius, Ingeborg (1971) Das Neolithikum in Mecklenburg zur Zeit und unter besonderer Berücksichtigung der Trichterbecherkultur. Beiträge zur Ur- und Frühgeschichte der Bezirke Rostock, Schwerin und Neubrandenburg, vol. 5. Schwerin: Museum für Ur- und Frühgeschichte.

Reifferscheid, Heinrich (1935) Friedrich Lisch, Mecklenburgs Bahnbrecher deutscher Altertumskunde. Mecklenburgische Jahrbücher 99, 261-276.

Schnapp, Alain (1996) The Discovery of the Past. The Origins of Archaeology [1993]. London: British Museum Press.

Schuldt, Ewald (1972) Die mecklenburgischen Megalithgräber. Untersuchungen zu ihrer Architektur und Funktion. Beiträge zur Ur- und Frühgeschichte der Bezirke Rostock, Schwerin und Neubrandenburg, vol. 6. Berlin: Deutscher Verlag der Wissenschaften.

Sprockhoff, Ernst (1938) Die nordische Megalithkultur. Handbuch der Urgeschichte Deutschlands, vol. 3. Leipzig and Berlin: de Gruyter.

Sprockhoff, Ernst (1967) Atlas der Megalithgräber Deutschlands. Part Two: Mecklenburg—Brandenburg—Pommern. Bonn: Habelt.

Steinmann, Christoph V. (1995) German Archaeology and Archaeological Theory. The Case of Megalithic Monuments in Northeast Germany. Unpublished MA dissertation, Department of Archaeology, Southampton University.

Trigger, Bruce G. (1989) A History of Archeological Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

© Cornelius Holtorf